Birgit Nilsson’s autobiography was published in Swedish in 1995. It appeared in a German translation in 1997. Recently Northwestern University Press has published it in English. But it is the German translation that has appeared in English. Thus one wonders what has been gained in translation.
Operatic memoirs usually consist of I sang this here and that there with this singer there and that singer someplace else. La Nilsson – My Life in Opera has a lot of that kind of stuff in it, but the great Diva was famous for her wit and it shows through the layers of translation that stand between her writing and the reader.
First her three favorite tenors – as promised. “Of all the tenors with whom I have sung throughout my long career, there were three whose singing went directly to my heart: Benjiamino (sic) Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Erik Sjöberg. Unfortunately, his (Sjöberg’s) career did not unfold as one had hoped. His nerves were not made for the stressful and grueling profession, and he had only a short career.” If anybody knows anything about this Danish tenor please advise.
Of course the first two are hardly a surprise. About Gigli Nilsson says, “I have never been so deeply impressed by a singer. His voice was like a stream of molten gold. He could do anything he wanted with his voice: crescendo, diminuendo, and again crescendo, without noticeable register changes and always maintaining the same seductive sound.”
Nilsson had a number of interesting things to say about Di Stefano. He “had an especially beautiful voice. It was impossible not to be moved; he truly had the sound of tears in his voice without being oversentimental (sic). His wonderful piano – and his stirring voice – moved his audience almost beyond endurance. Pippo was a big kid with a lot of charm. He didn’t take the profession too seriously and he certainly didn’t carry discipline very far. He was a passionate gambler and spent most of his free time in the casino.”
When he was several days late for rehearsals of Turandot at La Scala, Nilsson was ready to explode with anger. “He came sauntering in as if he were right on schedule! And he had sung no more than 10 bars before all my wrath was forgotten. He sang in a way that made your heart ache. He had a charm that could melt stone. And so…I melted.”
Of her famous battles of the high Cs with Franco Corelli, she says he “most often walked off with the prize for holding the C longest, even if he claims otherwise.” She says of the infamous bout in Turandot which she won and which caused Corelli to leave the stage, “I noticed that Corelli always went to the apron of the stage for his high notes and slowly became blue in the face. This spurred me on and I sustained the high C we sang together until everything went black before my eyes. When my vision returned Corelli had disappeared.” They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
When I first got the book I looked in the index to see if Richard Tucker was mentioned, but didn’t find his name. Nevertheless he’s there. When discussing her appearances at the Verona arena she mentions the local tradition of the audience holding lit candles. “Someone told a conceited American tenor that the public lit the candles in his honor and I heard often about interviews in the states where he spoke of this unique honor.” The conceited tenor is none other than our Rubin Ticker. Not only did he believe this baloney, he put it on the back of one of his LP albums. God gives voices to stable boys – especially if they’re tenors. Tucker was as conceited as he was great. Thus, he had a lot to be conceited about.
Conductors are not neglected either. She thought Herbert von Karajan a great conductor. As a person he comes across as a real jackass. She did not like his stage directions. “When he came onstage to demonstrate movement, his own became very strange. He strutted about like a cock in a hen house, his rear end stuck out and his head in the air.” His endless lighting rehearsals drove her mad.
The account of Leonard Bernstein addressing his image in a full length mirror prior to going to the podium is worth the book’s price all by itself. “Lenny, this is not mere narcissism, this is true love!”
The book’s a lot of fun. If you’re interested in Birgit Nilsson and the state of the opera world in the mid 20th century, get it.